Recently, Tim Kreider at the New yorker laid out some of the headwinds against the Atavist project:
“Sometime in the past couple of generations, capitalism’s victory over our hearts and minds seems to have become complete, in that hardly anyone even notices it anymore. It’s a monoculture, taken for granted, like monogamy, or monotheism, or having one sun. It’s hard to think of any “serious” literary writers in the United States under the age of fifty who engage the big political issues of our time as directly as Boomer authors like Paul Auster (“Leviathan”), Thomas Pynchon (“Vineland”), or Robert Stone (“A Flag for Sunrise”), let alone in the way that muckraker novelists like Upton Sinclair used to. When we call literary writers “political” today, we’re usually talking about identity politics. If historians or critics fifty years from now were to read most of our contemporary literary fiction, they might well infer that our main societal problems were issues with our parents, bad relationships, and death. If they were looking for any indication that we were even dimly aware of the burgeoning global conflict between democracy and capitalism, or of the abyssal catastrophe our civilization was just beginning to spill over the brink of, they might need to turn to books that have that embarrassing little Saturn-and-spaceship sticker on the spine. That is, to science fiction.”
(Tim Kreider, Our Greatest Political Novelist?, www.newyorker.com, December 12, 2013)
A couple things to note. First, not to toot our own horns, but this is why we feel the need for The Atavist Daily - to create space for the discussion of these bigger-picture issues. Second of all, it’s hard not to think that part of the limitation on true political literary discourse is the fact that capitalists are in power both in the literary establishments and in the democratic party, which functionally limits liberal discourse.
The Literary Capitalists
I’m not positing a conspiracy theory with regards to the literary establishment. But most literature in a capitalist society will, inevitably, serve capitalism. The publishers and sellers are in business, after all, and they need to sell books in order to eat, so the most attention will flow to projects that will sell. And the literary industry makes its home in New York city, where capitalism is practically injected into the water supply. Truly disruptive thought doesn’t sell well, because (i) it’s disturbing, and most people don’t want disturbance, they want the ideas that they already agree with validated, and (ii) any potentially disruptive thought has a hard time getting a foothold in the industry to even get in front of customers. The Master’s tools will never break down the Master’s house, and all that.
I think about this every time I read the New York Times Book Review. I love reading book reviews - it’s a great way to confront the ideas of authors that I wouldn’t otherwise pay much attention to, and there aren’t very many worthwhile book reviews left. But by giving their attention to bourgeois thought and minor histories, they in effect suggest that this is the only territory for serious thought.
Consider the books reviewed in the July 13, 2014 edition of the Sunday Book Review, in the order they're presented on the NY Times website:
By VICKI CONSTANTINE CROKE
A man known as Elephant Bill had an almost mystical understanding of the animals, and trained them to help build bridges and evacuate refugees during World War II.
‘The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar’
By MARTIN WINDROW
Martin Windrow’s memoir is about his 15-year relationship with the tawny owl who changed his life.
‘Preparing the Ghost’
By MATTHEW GAVIN FRANK
Matthew Gavin Frank’s wide-ranging book explores an amateur naturalist’s compulsion to understand the mystery of the giant squid.
By MAGGIE SHIPSTEAD
A New York ballerina helps a Russian dancer defect, but her own desires are thwarted.
‘The Year She Left Us’
By KATHRYN MA
In this first novel, a girl adopted from China finds it difficult to situate herself in American life.
‘Summer House With Swimming Pool’
By HERMAN KOCH. Translated by SAM GARRETT.
A holiday near the Mediterranean leads to disaster for a doctor and his celebrity patient in this novel by the author of “The Dinner.”
The Fault in Our DNA
By DAVID DOBBS
Do genes shape behavior and history, or are they malleable? Two authors disagree.
‘Dying Every Day’
By JAMES ROMM
A classicist tries to unravel the enigma of Seneca, the Stoic philosopher who tutored the emperor Nero.
‘China’s Second Continent’
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
More than a million Chinese pioneers have built new lives in Africa.
By PETER HELLER
A painter with violent impulses tries to start over, but his past catches up with him.
Now, I have nothing against any of these books or authors, and a number of them sound genuinely interesting. But how many truly important topics addressed in these books? I count two, kind of:
the connection of DNA and race discussed in David Dobb's article, which is only 'kind of' important because it's ginned-up sensationalism - if there wasn't a book making the claim that race and DNA was a topic worth discussing, the topic wouldn't be worth discussing. In a sense, the book creates it's own market - like any outrageous claim presented with a straight face, people feel compelled to respond; and
the trend of Chinese pioneers settling in Africa, which is worth considering from an economic and historical point of view. However, the book reviewed is more of a travelogue, taking us to crazy places and introducing us to crazy people, which is by no means the important part of the story. And this review, arguably the most important of the week, is presented next-to-last, after books about an elephant, an owl, and a russian ballerina.
Which, again, doesn't make any of the books unworthy. I'm not claiming that every book produced needs to wrestle with the important issues of our day. But the establishment of the New York Times is presenting these as the most important books worth considering this week. If an alien came down to earth and saw that these were the most important books of the week, it would have to conclude that there weren't any real conflicts going on in our world. And that's the problem. Serious literature has come to resemble a hobby for boring people with disposable income, rather than a forum for the intellectual work involved in creating and sustaining a culture.
The Socialist Capitalists
It’s hardly news that the Democratic party, and the American left in general, is pro-capitalist, despite what Fox News claims to think. Corporate capitalism gains traction with the left because it can provide financial funding to politicians, because it controls most of the media and creates an ‘Overton Window’ of acceptable thought that’s safe for capitalism, and because people are generally scared of change and are willing to keep breaking their backs for capitalism because they still think there’s more up there for them, if they can just make some more money.
The upshot is that there are very limited cultural areas where discussion of the big ideas is allowed. Science fiction and fantasy, as suggested by the New Yorker article, are safer, because people will feel less threatened by the suggestions. I love science fiction, partially for that reason. But there is real danger in this: when disruptive thought is only possible in fantasy worlds, any attempt to change the real world looks and sounds like a fantasy. How many people do you know who harbor serious objections to American society yet seem resigned to it, convinced that the capitalists will always win? We need to provide examples of change in the real world, not just in fantasies, or else that resignation will win.
Because here’s the capitalist’s secret: they can’t win forever. Their system is unsustainable, addicted to higher and higher rates of consumption and growth, no matter what the costs to the actual people who make up society. The question is whether we can seed enough change into modern society to make it sustainable, or, if we can’t, what ideas will be available for experimentation when the current model fails. Libertarians are out there sowing their free-market ideology partially so that when a society starts having problems, their ideology is already seeded into political thought and can be exploited by the corporations who benefit from it. If you’re not convinced of that, read at least a little of Naomi Klein’s book “The Shock Doctrine”. Do we as a culture have any ideas for how society could work other than letting corporations have everything they want?
Yes, we do. And we're hoping you'll read on.
Science Fiction and Atavism's Critique of Culture
by Jackson Lay
August 2, 2014
Serious literature has come to resemble a hobby for boring people with disposable incomes.
The consolations of science-fiction are many. But they're not enough.